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Interview with Victor Lodato

“We’re living in ridiculously divisive times,” says Victor Lodato, who is on the Sunday Times EFG shortlist for a second time, this time for his story, Herman Melville, Volume 1. He talks about his characters, who are always trying to find their way home, the insanity of writing and how short stories can be “intense literary bombs”

  • Your story, Herman Melville, Volume 1, touches on themes of homelessness, survival and kindness. Where did the initial spark for that story come from?
    I live part of the year in Ashland, Oregon, where there are a lot of drifters passing through town – and, a year or so ago, I noticed a young woman, quite scruffy, obviously homeless, who was carrying this very beautiful but worn banjo case. At that point, I didn’t make much of it – but then she kept coming back to me, especially the sadness in her face, and I felt compelled to write about her, to imagine her life.

    The action in Herman Melville, Volume 1 takes place in a very different world from Tucson, Arizona, which is where the story that was shortlisted last year, The Tenant, was set – but would you say the characters share core tendencies?
    First of all, I would say, in regard to the girl in Herman Melville, that, as I wrote about her, I began to understand that she and I had some things in common. I’d run away from my life in Arizona, to hide out in Oregon and finish my second novel. I’d left Tucson with two suitcases, and then lived out of them for a couple of years. Like the girl, I was in a strange new place, trying to find my way. I suppose this similarity helped me find my way into the character. I started out observing her, but then I became her. And that’s always the most fertile place for me to write from – from inside a character. I think it helps keep me truthful, emotionally, and prevents me from writing anything just to be clever. As for my characters sharing core tendencies: yes, I suppose they’re often trying to find their way home, to find a family. They’re often living on some edge, and desperate for stability – for kindness, for love. And I suppose, as I build a story, I’m confronting my own relationship to such things, my own longings. For me, longing is a powerful place to write from. It creates an interesting emotional tension.

    How does it feel to be shortlisted for a second time – how has your writing changed or developed in the past year?
    I was gobsmacked to be shortlisted again. Also, I experienced a strong feeling of relief. I work so insanely hard that to be recognised like this makes me feel like the insanity might have been worth it – that I’m writing things that have some value for other people. As for any development in my writing: I keep trying to become more honest, more direct, and, in terms of the short story, to see how intricate a world I can build in a small space (“an apocalypse in a teacup,” as the writer Hortense Calisher once described a good short story). Also, I’m always trying to play with structure, to build narratives that allow strong emotion to flow through them effortlessly, without staginess.

    How do you describe your style of writing for people who haven’t read your work before? Is there a memorable line from a review perhaps that encapsulates how you feel about your own writing?
    Because character is at the core of my work, I liked what Kathleen Rooney said in The Chicago Tribune review of my latest novel – that I encourage “the reader to feel sympathy for each and every one of the characters. Even as they frequently commit foolish or terrible acts, as rendered by Lodato, they remain indelibly human.”

    Is it necessary for an author “to write about what you know”? Or is there value in stepping outside of one’s comfort zone into situations that haven’t been experienced directly?
    The way my memory works is a bit odd. While I don’t recall specific events very clearly, I have a strong memory of how I felt throughout my life. And so I think in many ways that my project as a writer has been to invent stories that can accommodate these emotions – to create fictional architectures that can contain these remembered feelings that roam around in me without context. It’s actually a relief to have a place to put these emotions – to bind them to an invented narrative. So I write what I know emotionally, not situationally. The situations are often quite intense, and beyond my personal experience, but my emotions – very intense, as well – are perfectly at home there.

    Do authors have an obligation to be political or make an important point about the society in which they live, do you think?
    I think it is best when this happens organically in a story. My obligation, above all, is to be true to the characters – and if any political or social points arise, I want it to come out of that. At the core of all writing and reading is mystery – the ultimate mystery being, who are other people? One writes – and reads – in an attempt to answer this question, or at least to get closer to an answer. It’s a very humanising endeavour, and a very civilizing one.

    Do you believe that the short story is experiencing something of a revival?
    I can only say that the short story is very alive for me, and central to my project as a writer. And I think there are many writers working masterfully with the form right now. I see short stories as a sort of literary bomb. Unlike the slow burn of a novel, stories can hit us in a harder, more immediate, way. And maybe readers – and writers – are craving that kind of intensity right now, as a means of staying awake to the truth of who we are, as humans. We’re living in ridiculously divisive times. At such a moment, I think the short story is a wonderful existential opportunity – one in which we give up some of our own life to consider the lives of other people, sometimes people who are nothing like us. And I think we’re more likely to be open to this in a story – more so than in a novel – because we know that our relationship with the characters will be brief. To my mind, there’s something very poignant about this kind of literary encounter. It’s a marvellous, versatile form – and it’s clearly here to stay.

    Interview by Sophie Haydock

    Victor Lodato was born in New Jersey. He is the author of ‘Edgar and Lucy’ (Head of Zeus UK, St. Martin’s Press US) and ‘Mathilda Savitch’ (2009), which was hailed by The New York Times as ‘a Salingeresque wonder of a first novel’. The novel won the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, and has been published in sixteen countries, including the UK (Fourth Estate). Victor is a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Camargo Foundation (France) and the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy). He was shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His short fiction and essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta and Best American Short Stories. Lodato currently divides his time between Tucson, Arizona and Ashland, Oregon.